BMCR 2020.06.37

Xenophon’s ‘Hellenika’. A commentary, vol. I: Hell. i.1.1-ii.2.24

, , Xenophon's 'Hellenika'. A commentary, vol. I: Hell. i.1.1-ii.2.24. Classical and Byzantine Monographs, 97. Amsterdam: Hakkert, 2019. 408 p.. ISBN 9789025613440 €80,00 (pb).

D.H. Kelly passed away in December 2015, leaving an extensive but unfinished commentary on the Hellenica of Xenophon. Now James McDonald has taken up the task of bringing the work to publication, which he explains largely involved checking references and other minor issues. This is the first of three promised volumes, and provides a general introduction and a commentary on the Hellenica to 2.2.24, or to the fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. An up to date commentary on the Hellenica is certainly needed, but while Kelly’s erudition and long experience with Xenophon shine through, I found the present volume frustratingly narrow in approach.

From the outset, Kelly makes clear that he considers his commentary to be old-fashioned—a dinosaur, as he calls it. Not only that, he makes his feelings about modern scholarship quite plain as well: “too often, serious studies of ancient texts and historians have been displaced by fashionable theories of limited value,” (p. 1) although besides narratology precisely which theories he refers to is not made clear. In general, with a few exceptions, Kelly engages with scholarship on Xenophon and the latter part of the Peloponnesian War that post-dates World War II far less than with the scholars of the 19th and early 20th century. From the commentary it is clear that Kelly’s main concerns are with the reading of the text itself, issues of chronology, and other technical matters. He presumes considerable familiarity with the events and figures on the part of the reader. This is a commentary focused on the details (not a bad thing of course!) but no larger picture of Xenophon emerges. And broader questions of historiography—how Xenophon constructs his history, what he chooses to include or exclude, how he understands events and figures—receive little attention overall.

The issue of speeches provides a good example of Kelly’s approach towards Xenophon. In the introduction Kelly refers to the debate over speeches in ancient historiography as “stalemated” (p. 25). In the discussion that follows he approaches Xenophon’s speeches (the table of all the speeches in both direct and indirect speech in the Hellenica is just one of many useful tables spread throughout the work) solely through the questions of historical accuracy and authorial bias. This is the classic approach to reading ancient speeches—ascertaining how well the historian would have been able to accurately reproduce what was actually said. But in recent decades scholars have begun moving beyond the stalemate over those questions to trying to understand how ancient historians use speeches in their works to illustrate larger themes and truths beyond the immediate moment. This does not invalidate or replace studying the historicity of speeches, but rather enhances our understanding of rhetoric and the historian. The first part of the Hellenica actually contains the longest speech in the entire work—Euryptolemus’s defense of the Athenian generals after the battle of Arginusae. Kelly’s commentary on this (pp. 222-234) includes a brief introduction on the structure of the speech, and then numerous notes on textual issues, technical matters such as the exact laws at hand and the voting procedures in the assembly, and even a detailed discussion (with two tables) on the use of interrogative οὐκούν by Xenophon. There is nothing on the larger themes of the speech, how it functions in the broader Arginusae narrative, or its significance for the Hellenica, such as how Euryptolemus characterizes the Athenians and what has made them great, or how Euryptolemus functions in the narrative as a counterpart to Socrates. Nor does Kelly make any attempt to link Euryptolemus’s speech to other parts of the Hellenicawhere similar issues come up—for example the speech of Procles at 6.5.38-48. The reevaluation of speeches in ancient historiography has been underway for a long time, and it is disappointing that Kelly ignores it.

Kelly does try to provide a limited framework for understanding why Xenophon wrote the Hellenica in his introduction. It is not a flattering portrayal—Xenophon “was not one for prolonged and laborious research” (p. 21) but embarked on his Hellenica late in life because so many others were writing history (a nod to 4th century historiography, which Kelly largely ignores). As a result, Xenophon focused on themes, issues, and events that his audience, which Kelly envisions as conservative Athenian aristocrats, would be interested in. Unfortunately, Kelly rarely applies this analysis to help elucidate individual elements (or omissions) in the text of the Hellenica itself, which is a pity. Flawed as the Hellenica is, it is still an important source for fourth-century history. A better understanding of Xenophon can help scholars, but Kelly is not interested in pursuing that path.

Nevertheless, within the boundaries that Kelly has set for himself there is much of use in this volume, although extensive knowledge of Xenophon and the period is presumed. Perhaps the area in which Kelly excels the most is the problem of Xenophon’s chronology. The introduction provides a clear overview of the problems of Xenophon’s chronology. Kelly prefers the so-called “low-chronology” that dates back to Dodwell’s 1701 work, and he provides an extensive table laying this out for the end of the Peloponnesian War. But he also gives a summary of the “high-chronology” and the reasons for preferring it, followed by an analysis (with another useful table) of chronological notices in Xenophon and the reasons for regarding many as interpolations. This continues in the commentary itself. On the Battle of Notium (pp. 161-162), he goes into great detail on the two potential chronologies and gives full weight to the arguments of multiple scholars, before concluding that the low chronology is probably correct. This is Kelly’s commentary at its best—detailed, even-handed, able to acknowledge the uncertainties while still making a reasoned preference.

Another area on which Kelly focuses a great deal of attention is the establishment of the text. But here at times Kelly is often unclear about his preferred reading, and he too often lists multiple editors’ views without taking a clear stand of his own. To give a straightforward example, at 1.7.29. Kelly prints the text ἑαυτῶν ὄντας, from the sentence μὴ ὑμεῖς γε ἀλλ’ ἑαυτῶν ὄντας τοὺς νόμους…φυλάττοντες. The word in question is ὄντας, which Kelly calls the usual reading. He then cites Edwards 1899 as calling the reading poor, and next Kurz (1879), Hartmann (1887), Peter (1837), Keller (1890) and Madvig (1871) as all preferring ὄντες here, and he notes that one manuscript has that reading as well. But does Kelly prefer it? He prints ὄντας, does not defend it, only cites scholars who prefer ὄντες, but does not come out and say that his choice is ὄντες too. This ambiguity comes up repeatedly, especially in textual notes. If commentators can not decide between two readings they should say so, but equally if their preference is for one they should say so, especially if their knowledge of the text is as deep as Kelly’s clearly is.

Generally, alongside chronology the commentary is best when it deals with technical issues left unexplained by the text. For example, at 1.5.5 Kelly gives a detailed overview about the pay rates of Greek crews, and how this evolves as the Persian involvement in the war grows, to explain Cyrus’s initial payments to Lysander. Another noteworthy example is Kelly’s examination of the legal role Socrates had to play in the Arginusae trial, with a detailed examination of all the sources and what is known about the procedures of the prytaneis.

On the other hand, Kelly does not focus nearly as much on questions relating to the history Xenophon recounts. Sometimes a larger section of the text will receive an introduction laying out the major problems and the other important sources, but this is inconsistent—the battle of Notium receives such an introduction, but the battle of Arginusae does not. Even major figures often receive very limited discussion. For example, Lysander first appears in the Hellenica at 1.5.1. He is perhaps the most important figure in the latter part of the Peloponnesian War, yet Kelly’s discussion of this passage relegates Lysander to a footnote (p. 151 n. 1) noting that this is his first appearance and citing a single work for Xenophon’s treatment of this important figure.[1] Kelly provides no discussion here of the background of Lysander or Xenophon’s treatment of him in the Hellenica as a whole. Later references to Lysander focus on individual details, but no larger picture or understanding emerges from the commentary of how Xenophon understands him or wants his audience to understand him. When Cleophon, perhaps the most important Athenian politician in the later part of the Peloponnesian War, receives his sole mention at 1.7.35, Kelly refers to his overall absence as a “remarkable omission” (p. 235) but does not explain who Cleophon was, or why Xenophon would almost completely ignore him.

Even large-scale battle narratives, for which Xenophon is a major and problematic source, receive relatively short shrift while more technical matters are fully discussed. Regarding the battle of Arginusae, Kelly provides two pages of commentary on the different types of officers Xenophon mentions (taxiarchs, nauarchs), but the strategy and course of the battle itself receives only three pages, which are largely focused on technical details and textual concerns. More recent discussions of the battle are relegated to a footnote (p. 194 nn. 51-52). Obviously, no commentary can ever cover everything, but a commentary on a historical work such as Xenophon’s should deal with the major historical issues and figures consistently, and Kelly generally does not.

The book has been well-edited, and I noted only a few typos. The many tables are clear and helpful, but the physical features and boundaries on the maps provided are so faint as to be almost unusable. At one point (p. 194) the text refers to “red text” in a figure, but the figure is entirely black and white, with the right margin slightly cut off.

Kelly calls commentaries dinosaurs, yet recent large scale works such as Hornblower’s Thucydides or Asheri’s Herodotus show that commentaries can address a broad audience of historians and classicists while dealing with serious issues in depth. Kelly’s work is so narrowly focused that, while scholars working on the text of Xenophon or specific historical issues that he raises will find much of value, those looking at broader issues regarding Xenophon, 4th century historiography, or the end of the Peloponnesian War will need to look elsewhere.


[1] Namely A. Powell, “Why did Sparta not destroy Athens in 404, or 403 BC?” in S. Hodkinson and A. Powell, Sparta & War, Swansea 2006. Even this piece is not a full treatment of Xenophon’s Lysander.